Can You Save a Photo Through Lightroom Editing Alone?

Can You Save a Photo Through Lightroom Editing Alone?

While it's important to get things right at the source, if you've made that age-old mistake of not changing your camera settings before taking the shot, is it possible to recover the photo? Or is it destined for the recycling bin?

There's many reasons why you've ended up with a poor photograph. If it's down to camera shake blur or the subject simply being out of focus, there's not a lot you can do. But what if you've nailed both of those things, but underexposed the scene? That happened to me last night.

I was busy shooting into the sun through the woodland and noticed the forest floor was awash with a glowing sunset orange. I was busy shooting in manual mode and completely forgot to change my camera settings when aiming back at the much darker forest floor. Snap. Black. "Huh, that's weird." I thought. Then I checked my settings.

Underexposed woodland landscape scene

This is the shot I got from using my camera settings I'd dialled in for shooting directly into the sun. There's nearly no detail in the frame at all (and no, it's not just a black frame)

I had an aperture of f/2.8, shutter speed at 1/4000 sec, and ISO320. "No wonder it's black, I'm maxed out on shutter speed!" So I slowed things down to 1/200 sec and took another photo. This time I got the right exposure. But it got me thinking. What if this was a moment never to be repeated. It may be a news event or a wedding. Could I save that original image? So I set about trying to recover the detail, not just to an acceptable standard, but one that would match the quality of my correctly exposed shot.

Correct the Exposure

Boost the exposure slider

I boosted the exposure of the shot so that things were visible by using the Exposure and Whites sliders in Adobe Lightroom Classic

The first thing I had to do was take my underexposed, black frame and boost it until it was brighter. In Adobe Lightroom Classic I bumped up the Exposure slider by +3.8. I also wanted the highlights to stand out for more of a punchy effect, so boosted the Whites slider to +35. Enhancing the exposure had an obvious side effect, it added noise in the shady areas of the shot. Use the comparison slider below to see the difference between the edited, and correctly exposed shot.

You can see that the correctly exposed shot actually looks a lot clearer, with less noise in the shadows. It also has an orange flare to the left and the angle is a little higher - that's because I was crouched down and wobbled a bit while changing the settings so the sun hit the front of the lens.

Reduce the Noise

Next I removed the noise by heading down to the Detail panel in Lightroom and increasing the Luminance slider almost to the max at +84. It gave everything a plastic faceted look which looked odd, so I turned the Detail slider to +100 in an attempt to retain some of the smaller details in the leaves. Time for another before and after with a close crop in to show the difference it makes.

It's looking pretty good. In fact, let's now take a look at the comparison between the recovered, and correctly exposed photos below, cropped in to 200%.

Apart from a couple of flies buzzing around the flowers things are now getting really close in terms of image quality. In fact, apart from the slightly different shooting angle and the extraneous flare, I'm not sure I can tell them apart.

Can You Save a Photo Through Editing Alone?

Yes, I believe you can. With the editing steps I've taken above I was able to recover a shot that was nearly 4 stops underexposed and make it look just as good as the photo that was shot with the correct settings. I'm not sure if this will work in every scenario, but as long as the photo has some data in it, (it's not clipped in the shadows or highlights) and things are nice and sharp, it's possible to recover a picture back to full quality. See below for the final comparison.

This technique might be helpful for those that like to shoot handheld in low light, or need to capture fast-moving subjects without blur but don't have enough available light for a correctly balanced exposure. What do you think? Are you able to tell the two shots apart? If you've done this before, tell us about a time you've purposely used this technique to get the shot.

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8 Comments

Tom In Arizona's picture

Hi Jason...

Very helpful article on using the power of today's post-processing software. Your use of screen captures showing settings and the before/after comparison sliders is very much appreciated.

Far more appreciated, is the fact that you've used written material rather than a video. For me at least, it is much easier to learn from the written version than it would be from stopping, starting, rewinding, adjusting sound, etc. of a video.

Tom

Matt Williams's picture

Thanks for the effort of this article. Modern sensors, especially great low-light sensors like the a7III or Nikon Z6, are pretty incredible at recovering detail from the shadows.

One thing, though: it would be best if you could also post full size (or at least much larger size) samples (whether embedded in the page or via download) because these are quite small and honestly it is difficult to really see the differences. Maybe it's because I'm using a 4K monitor, which makes it smaller of course.

But, that does speak to what is sufficient for web-only images. Almost all modern cameras are plenty capable of great files if you'll only ever post to the web.

Jon The Baptist's picture

Title should be changed to: Exposure doesn't matter anymore

Ravi Putcha's picture

That's taking 5 stops too far. Haha!

John Vander Ploeg's picture

If you are using a Nikon or Sony mirrorless it likely has an ISO invariant sensor. Given that you don’t underexpose the image too much (4-5 stops) and completely clip all your shadows there is no difference between shooting the “correct” ISO on location or adjusting the exposure in post.

Jasper Stone's picture

This line early on ...
"What if this was a moment never to be repeated. It may be a news event or a wedding. Could I save that original image?"

John Vander Ploeg's picture

The short answer is yes. However, most mirrorless shooters have “live view” turned on in the evf, so it would be nearly impossible to compose an image 5 stops underexposed because you wouldn’t be able to see anything. With that being said I’ve tested ISO invariance on my Nikon z7 and there truly is no difference between a correctly exposed image and a severely underexposed image so long as you don’t clip the shadows (which is pretty hard to do).

Ravi Putcha's picture

I appreciate that you made this a written piece. Most content here is just a promo/critique of a youtube video which you watch after you read here or wait watch before read and don't care to come back to read up...it's an annoying dilemma I'd rather pass. Thanks.